Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Barack Obama and the art of the drug confession

There is no need for me to contribute to the latest outbreak of Barack Obama fever, which was triggered on Sunday when the Democratic senator/rock star appeared on Meet the Press and, in response to a question about a 2008 presidential bid, left the door conspicuously ajar. The normally jaded Washington punditocracy continues to gush, as evidenced again here.

Largely overlooked, however, is the fact that Obama has already made history, of sorts. I’m not talking about how he would be the first serious African-American presidential candidate in either party. I’m referring, instead, to how he has already pioneered a new frontier in the Art of the Drug Confession.

In his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, he writes that, back when he was having tough times sorting out his youthful identity, he snorted cocaine (or, as he put it, “maybe a little blow”). The coke, along with booze and pot, helped him “push questions out of my mind about who I was,” and flatten “out of the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my memory.”

That passage has received some fresh attention in recent days (three mentions in the New York Times alone), in the wake of the release of Obama’s latest book, The Audacity of Hope. It is worth noting anew, because it constitutes a breakthrough for politicians on the drug confession front.

First, he is stating that he has used something stronger than marijuana. Second, he is not uttering the ritual regrets, or abjectly begging for mercy; rather, he is essentially saying that cocaine served a purpose, albeit a flawed purpose, during his time of confusion.

Until now, drug acknowledgments have fallen into three basic categories:

1. The Weasel Words Confession, as exemplified in 1992 by Bill Clinton, who said that he smoked pot but “didn’t inhale,” and that he “never broke the laws of my country,” which was true only because he smoked pot and didn’t inhale while he was a student in Great Britain.

2. The “Tried it, Didn’t Care for it” Confession, as pioneered in 1988 by Al Gore, who said that, yes, he had smoked pot in moments of youthful indiscretion, but that his escapes from sanity were “infrequent and rare.” (This claim was apparently a falsehood. According to Inventing Al Gore, a thorough biography authored by political writer Bill Turque, Gore smoked marijuana at least three times a week during much of the '70s. See pages 100-101.)

3. And the Peek-a-Boo Stonewall Confession, as demonstrated in 2000 by George W. Bush, who refused to ‘fess up to anything specific, without quite denying anything specific; witness his campaign mantra, “When I was young and reckless, I was young and reckless.”

Obama actually took a poke yesterday at the Clintonian Weasel Words model. Meeting with magazine editors in Phoenix, the drug topic came up, and Obama said flatly, "When I was a kid, I inhaled. That was the point."

Regarding cocaine, Obama has basically copped to a major drug, and he has invited people to shrug their shoulders. So far they have, which suggests that most Americans are willing to make nuanced character judgments about politicians, especially when they play it straight.


I mentioned at length yesterday that President Bush sought on Sunday to rewrite history, by insisting - despite the factual record - that he had "never" embraced the "stay the course" stance. For further discussion, this piece today deals with the issue.